Spotlight: Zac Keiller

As a man alone, on a stage, with a few effects, Zac Keiller creates compelling soundscapes, at times aggressive, at times elegiac, often both at once. The Australian guitarist has been on a journey for over a decade to find his musical voice and describes it admirably here

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?

When I picked up the guitar at age eleven, my initial motivation was I considered it “cool”. My older brother had been playing for about four years so I wanted to emulate him. I was obsessed with The Who: their instrument destruction was a fun concept to an eleven year old. I had no guitar of my own for a few years and played many of the guitars in the house. My main instruments were a Takamine GX200 electric and a mid-Eighties Fender Telecaster co-opted from my brothers. My father’s record collection was a constant in the background, particularly Neil Young’s Weld. I was attracted to the monstrous guitar tone, and that sound has never left my mind. This was the early nineties and my obsession then shifted to Nirvana. I learnt their entire catalogue and their music became my gateway to developing a basic guitar style. It was all power chords so “basic” was all I could manage at that point. My three brothers also play guitar; it was a house of music, and a great environment to grow up learning in. Music was very much out in the open and not stifled. There were guitars in nearly every room of the house and I would usually make a racket after school for a few hours, followed by playing while watching television. I’m an introvert by nature; while other kids in the neighborhood were out and about, nearly my entire young life revolved around staying indoors, playing guitar, and dreaming of having my own band. It was a great time!

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Photo: Elzette Bester

What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?

A rather convoluted tale that can be traced back to watching the all ages Saturday afternoon shows in Melbourne during the Nineties. There was a particular band named Ricaine. Their abrasive guitar sound and song writing was the antithesis of what I’d previously been listening to. I considered them the best band in Melbourne and their music was very inspiring at the time. I went to lots of their shows and struck up a relationship with the singer/guitarist. He’d send me letters and cassettes of his favorite music: things like The Jesus Lizard, Shellac, June of ’44, Tortoise, and Rodan—a lot of those Chicago bands. This relationship directly inspired my earliest experiments with home recording.

Around age sixteen, I found myself restless with what I was listening to, and began trying to find “weird” music. In early 1997, via their association with engineer Steve Albini, I came across the band Zeni Geva. I then discovered their singer KK Null’s solo guitar output—his live album Invisible Disaster was a life changer. My teen mind found incomprehensible the idea of a person performing solo guitar with no other instrumentation, let alone an audience staying to watch it! It was an amazing record that cemented the path of solo guitar I chose to pursue.

I started listening to players like Henry Kaiser, Fred Frith, Derek Bailey, and Keiji Haino. By this time I’d finally saved up and purchased a Fender Jag-Stang. I played crazy improvisations through a Digitech Space Station and a Digitech RP10 effects rack with the delay, reverb, and whammy settings maxed out, running into a Marshall MOS-FET 100 amp. Beating, scraping, and detuning my guitar, mimicking what I’d learned from these individuals. Thanks to K.K. Null, I was led into the world of Japanese noise artists, and for a time I abandoned the guitar entirely to dabble in power electronics with the aforementioned effects units, a Walkman, a contact microphone, and lots of feedback. I became quite obsessed and sent cassettes of my inept experiments all over the world to various labels. I was still a teenager but determined and delusional in equal measure. I began networking and trading recordings with Japanese noise artists, listening to Masonna, Aube, Solmania, Merzbow, and K2. I then took to the student airwaves hosting my own radio show during the ten to midnight slot, blasting unsuspecting listeners with a mix of power electronics, sprinkled with the odd Pink Floyd song. Surprisingly, the show was quite well received during its brief run.

In a short time I became disillusioned and bored with noise (there’s a quote right there!) due to the sameness of it all. And my obsession with collecting soundtrack music was starting to rival my interest in experimentation. I began thinking about ways to blend cinematic composition with what I’d learnt from noise. I felt a new sound needed to be made, which was simply a combination of the contrasting sounds I loved.

I produced a couple of home brewed self-releases at the tail end of the Nineties, but they still hadn’t captured the qualities I was seeking. They felt like preparations for things to come. I continued fumbling around during the early 2000s and I eventually began to find what I considered to be my own sound on my first proper release, titled The Field, coincidentally the founding release of my label, Dreamland Recordings, in 2002. The Field was a combination of noise, mood, composition, and structure I’m still happy with. I inched a little farther with Dialogue, collaboration with Argentinian sound artist Pablo Reche, which featured guitar and various other electronic sounds with a heavier degree of digital processing. With each of these works it became clear that the guitar was rightfully becoming a more prominent element, and with that in mind, the closer I was getting to the magical combination of sounds that had been floating around in my head. I decided to fully embrace my instrument and made a self-declaration that “I am a guitarist.” It was at that point that I felt a sense of breakthrough.

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Photo: James Wright

Over the next few years I became fixated on creating a fluid sound, seeking a means to achieve a consistent drone. I’d heard about Michael Brook’s infinite guitar and I wanted to create that type of sound myself. I made it happen with the Sustainiac Model C sustainer, a magnetic transducer that attaches to the headstock that causes the entire neck to vibrate—similar to the EBow but across all six strings. This setup served me well and was documented on releases like: Unrefined, Broken Signals and The Navigator. I also performed with it on one occasion, which was documented on the Monolith mini-release. After a short time this setup became a nightmare requiring too many pedals and a rat’s maze of routing them in a specific way. It felt like I was demonstrating a few contraptions, rather than actually performing.

Whose music inspires you?

I listen to a great deal of music on a daily basis, but at this point these folks occupy me the most: The Dirty Three, Low, Mazzy Star, Gustavo Santaolalla, Simon and Garfunkel, Jackson C. Frank, Roy Montgomery, Peter Wright, Neil Young, Aarktica, Lost Trail, Stars of the Lid, Loren Connors, Hungry Ghosts, Steve Gunn, J.P. Shilo, Silver Ray, Fabian Toonen, Cam Butler Greg Sage, and Jeff Beck.

 How did you get better at your current style?

A lot of trial and error: It is important to just play guitar every single day. Not so much to practice or rehearse, but to maintain the connection to the instrument. Improvisation is a useful tool that is very conducive for composition. It is important not to be afraid to try out crazy ideas behind closed doors. That is usually where I’ve hit on particular sounds or techniques I then put under the microscope to refine. Taking new discoveries out into a live setting is useful as well. In that arena you’re so focused on the performance you discover if you’ve found something that is worth keeping or eliminating.

What are you trying convey with your music?

The most important elements to me are emotion, mood, texture, and conjuring a visual. I’m after a quality that surprises me before it reaches anyone else. My playing has become quieter and taken on a more lyrical aspect in the last year, often melodic or thematic, but very simple. I feel like I’m searching to create a guitar sound that combines quiet minimalism with a wall of atmosphere, a huge expansive cloud with subtle articulation. Of course I can imagine one listening to any of my pieces and thinking, “I can’t hear any of that.”  But it is important that I can.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?

Due to action and tuning issues, I sold my Fender Jag-Stang to purchase a Cort M600 electric. This was my workhorse for much of the last decade and I rate these guitars highly. They remind me a little of the Ibanez lawsuit-era guitars. Cheaply priced but built to a very high standard. They’re quite similar in feel to a Les Paul, but the proportions are slightly smaller. They’re comfortable, versatile, can be wailed on and keep excellent tuning. I owned a Jazzmaster Blacktop during the last few years, but thus far I have never been able to find the right Fender that doesn’t require a degree of work to make it playable and tunable, so I tend to gravitate towards Gibsons because they immediately work for me. In the last few years I purchased my dream guitar in the form of a Gibson SG Standard with P90s. A no brainer, it is a similar model to that used by Pete Townshend! Originally I couldn’t tell the difference between P90s and Humbuckers. I’m a slow learner and it has taken me a few years to be able to discern the difference in tone. I love the SG style for its comfort, light body weight and slim build. The SG shape is the closest that I’ve come to the instrument being an extension of me—so much so that I picked up an SG EB4 bass and an SG 12 string. On my most recent recording work I’ve almost exclusively used an early eighties Washburn J-6 semi acoustic with a Bigsby. It has a large sound and rich warm tone. It can occupy a lot of the listening area if you have no bass guitar and minimal percussion.

For the last two years I’ve been playing Timberidge acoustic guitars and own three of them, a TR-4 Mini six string, a TR-4 12 string, and my favorite being the TR-3 Mini 12 string. They’re reasonably priced, comfortable to play and produce a great recorded sound when you get a couple of studio microphones on them. Playing acoustic guitar is important and grounding to me. I have adapted to working out ideas on an acoustic before transferring them onto other instruments.

In late 2006, I finally did away with the DigiTech RP10, and made the move to the much-maligned Behringer brand pedals. To this day these pedals are the foundation of my rig. The signal chain goes something like this: guitar into chromatic tuner, Behringer US600 Ultra Shifter Harmonist, ProCo Turbo Rat, Behringer FX600 Multi-FX (set to delay), Behringer DR600 Reverb, Behringer RV600 Reverb Machine [the last two are different pedals]. I then run a stereo chain out, one half of the chain goes into an obscure 1960s guitar and bass amplifier named The Deluxe. I’ve not been able to uncover any information on this amplifier, other than it being produced by “FET Silicon & Transistors”. It is a medium sized amp that is a separate head and cabinet with two ten-inch speakers. The other side of the chain plugs into a Strauss SRT-15 tube amplifier. This constitutes the most basic version of my rig during the last few years. For different performances I may have gone directly into the house PA system, or I may augment the pedal chain with the DigiTech XP300 Space Station.

I’m constantly trying to eliminate pedals in order to find out what can be created with the least amount of tools. I cannot abide an overabundance of pedals. I get a headache just looking at them, and they interfere with establishing a connection to the instrument. It has been my observation that the most inventive players usually have the least amount of gear.

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 Older gear setup

I would say a reverb pedal is the most important tool for me above all other pedals. The application of reverb can be applied in many subtle ways other than its primary function. As well as simulating different senses of space and sweetening a natural guitar tone, reverb has the ability to hide or obscure the attack and decay of sounds. I try to find ways to make effects less obvious. Reverb pedals have been most useful for that purpose, removing individual sounds and replacing them with an overall sound that has traces of its components. My pedal chain will never be without one.

For recording software I used to use Cool Edit Pro for my solo recordings. I capture what was played in one take. Sometimes I record a thirty-minute piece and then find sections within that, which then become a final piece, while discarding the rest. In more recent times I favor recording multiple guitar tracks, sometimes with different guitars to create more varied layers. Nowadays I have been dabbling in using Garageband, which is quite simple to work with.

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?

I enjoy both very much for different reasons. Most recently I have been focused on recording. My wife Holly and I are collaborating on two new projects that are studio based at this time. We have created the bulk of our recordings at The True Vine studio:  We have a very close relationship with our engineer who possesses an excellent understanding of how we work and the qualities we’re after. Until working with Holly, I had only ever recorded by myself on a computer, but the older I get, and with less available free time, it has been very effective for us to book a chunk of studio time, go in, highly focus for a day, and knock something out. It has also been enormously beneficial having such a collaborative mindset in these projects, and an equal partnership. We make every decision collaboratively for the good of the music. “What is the best for the song?” is a common guideline that has served us well. Being able to bounce ideas off our engineer, who is a highly accomplished musician we respect, has provided other options and alternatives we may not have considered on our own.

As for performing, I consistently performed between 2006 and 2013, culminating with my final two solo shows taking place in New Zealand. Initially, I viewed performing as my mountain to climb, and a means of dealing with introversion. Every show was different, and I would take something new away to alter for the next performance. My early shows were almost always improvised, but after a time I grew weary of that practice, mainly because the content was not up to scratch, and I felt that I did not have the chops to improvise a set. There was a great deal of fumbling around trying to “find” something. After a couple of years of this I started looking at writing my pieces. I use the term “writing” very loosely. My method was about finding the beginning, middle and end, with the journey in between those signposts being loosely improvised. This path opened things up and allowed me to experience what I was doing, rather than merely mechanically playing it.

After a while I turned my attention from the performing aspect to searching for spaces and environments that are conducive to the music I play. Sadly, in any conventional venue situations, nearly everything is squarely against you. My ideal scenario as an audience member is to sit quietly and watch without chatter, drink, drugs, an iPhone, or any extraneous noises whatsoever. Due to any and all of these distractions, the audience will usually miss an opportunity for something special. As a patron, on the extremely rare occasions I’ve been able to concentrate one hundred percent, it has enabled me to fully connect with the performance. I’d love this to be the standard concert going experience. I’ve had some great times in recent memory as a booker, and it is fun finding that special space and doing your best to prepare it for a performance outside of the norm.

When I get out there, I love to perform live and I take it very seriously. It is my belief that a live experience needs to be a negotiation between the performer and audience. Both parties have a responsibility in order to get the most out of it. My favorite experiences have occurred when booking in venues like cinemas, churches, houses, or art spaces.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

Most of the time I work in a vacuum and rarely have any interaction with, or feedback from the outside world about what I’m doing. In all honestly, I cannot speak of an audience for my music as I am not aware if it exists, or to what extent. I can say that when my micro-label was active I was releasing some of my own works alongside those of other artists, which resulted in a period of years where there was more noticeable awareness of my music. In trying to balance self-promotion alongside writing, recording, and performing, I’ve found it difficult to maintain that awareness. Being a musician often also means being an administrator, and one can wind up living on social media attempting to cultivate networks, while the guitar sits in the corner, slowly gathering dust. If you find yourself in this trap then very quickly the act of making music can fall by the wayside. Right now I’m mainly interested in writing, playing, and recording music. I’ll turn my attention to building an audience for my new projects once the music is ready to go out into the world.

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

As mentioned, Holly and I are working on two new projects. Neither of these is out there in the world yet, and I don’t talk about projects until they’re completed. But do stay tuned for new activity on these fronts. My most recent collaborative release entitled Farthest North, with Canadian artist Parhelion is available on the Cyclic Law label. This one comes in a CD/DVD package and features a short film accompanying a 20-minute rendition of material from the full-length album.

My most recent solo recording titled Search Party is available digitally from the Iceage Productions label. And my most recent unreleased solo recording titled For the Soul will be available on 2LP/CD/download formats by the Aurora Borealis label. For information on pre-ordering contact them directly.

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